Ghost Pepper Blamed for Two-Week Coma

SAN MATEO, Calif. (CN) – A man and his husband sued a popular Bay Area restaurant and its owner over injuries the man says he suffered after eating a burger containing one of the world’s hottest known peppers.

Sean Stout and his husband sued The Swingin’ Door and its owner, Warren Chapman, in San Mateo County Superior Court on March 16. Stout, 49, says the restaurant’s “XXX Burger” burned a hole in his esophagus after he ate it during a visit to the restaurant last year.

Stout says in the complaint that his injuries were due to a “burnt esophagus.” But the rare and life-threatening rupture was actually caused by Stout’s relentless vomiting after completing his meal along with six glasses of water, according to doctors at the San Mateo Medical Center where he was treated, in an article in the Journal of Emergency Medicine about the incident as the first recorded case of its kind.

The man’s doctors also realized his chest pains were more than heartburn after an X-ray showed signs that air leaking into his chest cavity had partially collapsed his lung.

The XXX Burger is billed as “the hottest burger in the nation.” Although the partly secret recipe appears to have evolved over the years – ghost peppers were introduced into the sauce in 2009 or 2010 – when Stout visited The Swingin’ Door in 2015, the burger’s spicy sauce contained a mixture of habanero, scotch bonnet and ghost peppers, according to the restaurant’s website, old articles and staff members.

Stout says in the complaint he had not heard of the ghost pepper before restaurant staff mentioned it that day. He says a bartender offered no warning and very little information about the burger before he ordered it, except that he would be rewarded for eating it.

The complaint does not mention any sort of medical waiver which, according to staff members and others in accounts going back as far as 2005, patrons had to sign before eating a XXX. Stout claims he was never offered any milk or ice cream, which would have helped soothe the burn of the pepper.

Capsaicin, the molecule that accounts for peppers’ “heat,” is a neurotoxin that can be deadly in concentrated forms. According to the Scoville Food Institute, a ghost pepper contains roughly two to six times the capsaicin of a habanero, which is roughly 140 times hotter than a jalapeno.

Many of Stout’s initial symptoms, including flushed skin, tunnel vision, numbness, stomach ache, nausea, and excessive sweat, tears and mucous production, were due to his body’s spontaneous attempts to purge itself of the ghost pepper’s capsaicin.

Stout says he underwent immediate surgery for his injury and was in a coma for two weeks. Although the doctors’ article about the case does not mention coma, they do say the patient was “intubated” for the same amount of time. Stout spent 23 days in the hospital and was discharged with a gastric tube in place.

The Swingin’ Door’s owner, Chapman, could not be reached for comment. But a video on the restaurant’s website filmed sometime before Stout’s visit shows him talking about the XXX Burger and the “Wall of Flame” – Stout’s reward for eating the burger along with a “commemorative bumper sticker,” Stout says in the complaint.

“If you want something really, really hot, come to The Swingin’ Door and you’ll get your fix,” Chapman says in the video.

The video also shows restaurant staff wearing gloves and gas masks while preparing the burger. Only 10 percent of patrons are able to finish their meal, the video says.

According to the complaint, the ghost-pepper version of the burger is no longer sold at the restaurant.

Stout and his husband’s claims include negligence, product liability, gross negligence, infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium. They seek general and punitive damages.

They are represented by Albert Thuesen III of Coit Law Group in San Francisco, who declined to comment.

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